Monthly Archives: February 2012

Paradiso Canto 7: When Punishment or Mercy Won’t Do

No one may grasp the hidden meaning of
this edict, brother, till his inborn senses
have been made whole in the sweet fire of love. (Par 7.58-60)

Yes, Brother. Amen, Brother.

Justinian departing at the beginning of Canto 7

I remember a story about a Jesuit Priest, a professor in a prestigious Catholic seminary, who asked his theology class the question one sunny morning, “How many of you understand the Doctrine of the Trinity?”

Half the class members somnolently raised their hands.

“You,” he said, staring the hand-raisers in the eye with a long pause. “You show you do not understand the Doctrine of the Trinity.”

We’re dealing with deep mysteries here – and Dante himself says so. That Beatrice is speaking not so poetically, but more like a scholastic theologian, is evident in the number of times Dante places the phrase, “Now pay attention people, or you’ll miss this…” (or its rough Italian equivalent) on Beatrice’s lips. Dante is doing theology, like only Dante can, and stretches not only the limits of good Terza Rima, but human logic as well.

But here’s the key starting point, I think: if we have a hard time understanding the theology of the cross (or the mystery of the Trinity, for that matter), it’s because we’re weighed down in human concepts, human ways of thinking, human ideas of justice and mercy that have the potential to make us miss the mystery of love, whose nature can seem to our human minds strange and paradoxical. The only way we can really fully understand it is through the lens of love itself, or (more precisely) in the light of love, whose glow seems to be increasing the closer heavenward we venture.

So, we encounter the first paradox: how come God both required a sacrifice to balance the scales of justice (i.e. the sacrifice of the only-begotten son), and at the same time required punishment of that same act (here referring to the sacking of Jerusalem under Titus Caesar, which in the mind of Dante’s age was thought to be avenging the crucifixion of Christ)? How is it that God, um, requires a sacrifice – of his only son? Requires vengeance in the form of the destruction of the holy city that God himself founded? Such notions represent a stumbling block that has tripped up not only many a non-believer, but also many a Christian.

Dante says, if I’m reading correctly here (and good chance I’m not): Well, God and the Jews were in sync. That the Jews really are all of us should be evident to us as a modern audience – and that the scapegoating of the Jews is an insidious product of human sin itself should be obvious to us…more on that later. But Dante says here: humans meant it for evil, God meant it for good. The earth quaked in horror, and the heaven’s were opened for bliss. Therefore, what was the most magnificent event in all human history was also cause for vengeance and punishment at the same (paradoxical) time.

Let me first turn over something of a new leaf here, and say I’m not quite sure that I’m with Dante here; at least, not completely. Let me say that the Great Poet was a child of his age, steeped in scholastic/Anselmian theories of the atonement, and medieval concepts of justice. But I don’t buy the notion that God requires a sacrifice in order to make things right. I’m more with Rene Girard, I suppose – or even Barth. To say that God required death – nay child sacrifice – is not true; WE required it. It is first God’s huge NO to the ultimate innocent death, the final way of exposing the very heart of human sin: OUR requirement of blood sacrifice, in the vain attempt to balance the scales for a while, attain some peace on the cheap at the price of a little innocent human blood.

But we remember that the cross also, at the same time, contains God’s YES. In submitting to human foolishness, God both exposes to the plain light of day the nature of its violence, while also showing forth the kind of love that heals all violence: through violence, God gives himself to us, as a final act of healing our violence. This is the paradox of the cross.

So, if we, especially those of us who prefer a somewhat more nuanced view of the cross than traditional atonement theology…if we strip down what Dante is trying to say poetically (and rather scholastically at the same time), we might arrive at a notion like this: how can love be love if it’s cheap?

If the only cure for human madness is love, and if our madness is so extreme that only the most serious medicine will do – only a medicine that God is capable of giving – what can we say of this medicine?

First of all, it ain’t cheap. Dante asks the question, really: “So, why didn’t God just forgive Adam’s indiscretion?” Why was mercy not the only medicine required?

I’m reminded of Auden’s whimsical musing from Herod’s speech in For the Time Being:

“I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”

It’s mockery to think that God’s grace is so cheap that, as a salve to human conscience, we can go on with our madness with the comforting notion that God will forgive all. Or, that the crime itself was no big deal.

Such an illusion, for Dante to be sure, would only further enslave us in our illusion. And what we’re after, after all, is ultimately freedom. Freedom from the illusion of freedom that Adam sought, in the attempt to take on God’s nature that ruined his, and our, own. By trying to take freedom by violence, Adam (i.e. our primordial fool) relinquished his freedom.

No – the crime is ultimate, says Dante; in sinning against heaven, we can’t pay a commensurate price in humility. Only the most precious ointment will make us right.

This is what Bonhoeffer means when he writes of cheap grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church…. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap? (The Cost of Discipleship).

One might say that cheap grace is the kind that let’s sin creep back in – for example, in fobbing off on the Jews the crime of crucifixion.

But what of the alternative? Is punishment (of the human) adequate? Or is human repentance enough? Would it be true that even the most precious human blood shed could balance the scales? Not so. Paradise can not be regained,

…by any road that does not lead to one of these two fords:

Either that God, by courtesy alone,
forgive his sin; or that the man himself,
by his own penitence and pain, atone. (Par. 7.88-92)

Note that the statement itself is fraught with paradox: “Cannot be gained…by any road…that does not lead to one of these….” These, which are essentially the same. To paraphase Psalm 85, “Justice and mercy shall meet…” at the foot of the cross.

All this…still fuzzy, in light of…this light. But the miracle is that the Word of God “chose to descend into the mortal clay,” thereby giving light to our eyes – if only evident at times in “hints and guesses” that bespeak our ultimate eternal healing and bliss.  (Thanks, T. S.)

But, to end, I can think of no better portrayal of how it all…works…than in this, a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies (dealing with the themes of violence, punishment, innocence, redemption): the cliffside scene in the movie The Mission. It’s about repentance and vengeance. No…it’s about forgiveness. Worth watching. But watch both of them.

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Paradiso Canto 6: Roman History (or, Gird Up Your Loins, this is a Doozie)

Veiled Light: The Politics of Rome and the Root of Jesse

 Following the flight from the Moon, Dante and Beatrice arrive in the second sphere, Mercury. In the fifth Canto, Dante likens his arrival on Mercury to a fish-pool. As a new fish attracts the attention of the school so too the new arrivals (Dante and Beatrice) draw the attention of all souls present, “so did I see full more than a thousand splendors draw toward us”. Dante is, unsurprisingly, immediately inquisitive. Mercury, often entirely obscured by the sun is somewhat of an enigma, after all.

Enigmatic too is this canto, which exposes the parallel history of the Roman Empire and the rise of the House of David. Gird up your loins, folks, we’ve got some history to get through.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Arriving at Mercury, Dante exclaims, “but I know not who you are, nor why, O worthy spirit, you have your rank in the sphere that is veiled to mortals by another’s rays” (5.130-135).

I Know Not Who You Are

In the sixth canto, we will follow the eagle, a symbol of God’s power and the primary symbol of the Roman Empire, from its founding  by Aeneas through the reign of the Caesars and to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The speaker begins by taking Dante back to the foundation of Christendom, “After Constantine turned back the Eagle counter to the course of the heavens”. You will, of course, remember that, before his deathbed conversion (337ad), the Emperor Constantine transferred the seat of the Roman Empire from the West (Rome, the seat of the papacy) to the East (Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in 330). Before his conversion, Constantine moves the eagle away from the seat of the church, reversing exactly Aeneas’s empire-expanding course from Troy to Italy.

The speaker then introduces himself, thus answering Dante’s first question, “I was Caesar, and am Justinian, who by will of the Primal Love which I feel, removed from among the laws what was superfluous and vain.” One should here note the shifts in tense. Justinian’s official title is unimportant in the heavenly realm. He “was Caesar.” Now, he is Justinian, justice, who still today feels the Primal Love which once inspired his earthly jurisprudence.*

Justinian, looking toward Beatrice’s expanded Christology in Canto VII, further defines himself by his orthodoxy. Before he codified the law, he held the heterodox view that Christ had only one nature—that is, that Christ was fully divine and not fully human (pace the prophets of our day who prefer that Jesus be viewed as only man and not divine!). There is some pride in Justinian’s affirmation that the Bishop Agapetus, “who was the supreme pastor, directed me to the true faith by his words.”

Throughout Canto VI, Justinian plays with themes of light and dark, ignorance and knowledge, truth and untruth. Mercury is a planet of extraordinary light that is nevertheless darkened by the sun. Justinian was a man of darkened ignorance whose view of Christ was transformed by the light of the orthodox two-nature doctrine. There is a duality at play here—a duality only heightened by references to the Aristotelian law of contradictories. The realization of contradictories will become important in Canto VII’s axiomatic discussion of Christ’s two natures. (and the paradoxes held within)

But again, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Nor Why Your Rank is Veiled

Having introduced himself, Justinian spends the bulk of the Canto tracing Roman history from the time before Christ through the passion and the succession of Titus, under whom the Temple was destroyed. The roles of the many players are too complicated to mention here. And indeed, Dante traces the history of the Republic in broad strokes. We follow the rise of Aeneas and the first expansion of the kingdom through Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and victory over Pompey (in this brief statement alone are three years of civil war!). We continue to follow the eagle to the extreme borders of Spain and the Alps, even to Pompey’s death in Egypt. We hear briefly of the betrayers Brutus and Cassius (who “bark” in hell), and of the death of Cleopatra, who turned against the empire by supporting her sons against the rightful heir. Dante’s brief history is meant to serve as preamble to Canto VII, which will expose the great mystery of Christ, a mystery far greater than Rome itself.

Nearing the end of Canto VI, Justinian notes “With him it coursed as far as the Red Sea Shore; with him it set the world in such peace that Janus’s temple was locked.”  The “Him” is Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar’s rightful heir and the initiator of the pax Romana. 

This is where it gets interesting.

Get to it, Stuckey, this is Getting a Bit Lengthy

The Roman God Janus is the Italian deity of doorways and protector of the state in war-time. The doors of his temple were to remain open in times of war (the god was said then to be with the armies), and had been locked only twice during the history of the Republic.  Under the rule of Augustus, the doors were closed for a third time. This time, though, the Republic would play host to the most important drama in its long history: the birth, adolescence, ministry and death of Christ. All history prior pales when next to this supreme historical moment when the seat of Caesar meets the root of Jesse.

As with the Roman history, here Dante skips over much of Jesus’ history, noting in the end that his death was avenged by another Caesar, Titus, who enacted “vengeance for the vengeance of the ancient sin.” Titus is considered by Dante the avenger of the Passion, for under his reign the Jewish Temple was destroyed (70ad). Orosius’s Roman Histories records the sentiment thusly, “Titus, who had been appointed by the decree of God to avenge the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ…closed the Temple of Janus…it was indeed right that the same honor should be paid to the avenging of the Lord’s Passion as had been bestowed upon His Nativity.”

Dante’s Canto, then, exposes the Divine foresight in appointing the Caesars such that a peace would befall Rome during the time of Jesus’ birth and ministry, and a vengeance would be enacted upon the Jews, who were (wrongly, I hasten to add) blamed for Jesus’ death.

Damnit, Leigh, You Still Haven’t Told Us Why they’re On Mercury

As I’ve noted, the Canto traces the history of the Roman empire to the birth of Christ. It seems to me that Justinian’s primary purpose in telling his story is establishing the means by which the pax was reached, thus setting the scene for The Extraordinary History. His secondary purpose, however, must be to answer Dante’s second question: how on earth did you get here?

After the (extraordinarily confusing) cautionary warning that is the history of the duel between the Guelphs, supporters of the Church, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Empire, Justinian notes, “This little star is adorned with good spirits who have been active in order than honor and fame might come to them.” Mercury, the obscured planet, is occupied by those whose earthly good was motivated by earthly ambition.

Those around whom human history turned are obscured in their heavenly place. Truly, they have received their reward. In eternity the light of their sphere is obscured ever so slightly for, “when desires, thus deviating [from the True Light], tend thitherward, the rays of true love must needs mount upwards less living [or, with less life].”

Yet their joy is no less, for their voices add to the harmony of the spheres, rending the choir of the heavenly realm richer by its presence.

If You Don’t Get to the Point, Stuckey, I’m Giving YOU up for Lent

God is the God of history, of the crossing of the Rubicon and of our own rubicons. God is the God who, amidst the violences of the Empire, prepares the way for the Coming of Christ and who, amidst the chaos of the 21st century, prepares for the Coming-Again of Christ. God is the God of those who presently draw attention to themselves and those who, like Romeo the Pilgrim, prepare the kingdom without reward.

History is God’s.

*Under the leadership of his general, Belisarius, Justinian’s empire expanded into the Vandal territory in Africa and the Goth territory in Italy. He is best known, though, for transforming Roman law.


Paradiso Canto 4: In Luna’s Light: Truth and truth – Can God be Unjust? [ Or, The Dilemma of Perception and Reality ]


Man’s mind, I know, cannot win through the mist
Unless it is illumined by that Truth
Beyond which truth has nowhere to exist
(IV, 124-126)

In his discussion of the Second Canto, John Timpane asserted of Truth:
“Our one way even to approach the truth of the Truth is to have faith, and to see through faith — indeed, as the glad light of Intelligence shines through the living pupil.” (See C2, above)

All that, of course, presents us with the major issue of what is truth / Truth?
In “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” Keats wrote that:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

And, Shakespeare’s brooding Dane stated:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(Hamlet, Act I, Scene V)

Neither was the first to be disturbed by this question.

The Greek Sophists argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the senses, and since all individuals sense, and therefore perceive, things differently—there is no absolute truth, only relative truth. So they believed. That IS quite a rub.

“What is Truth? Christ and Pilate, 1890” By Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge The “Horatio Question”

Truth and Will:
Many who have explored this canto in depth refer to it as a discussion of the “Risks of Free Will,” and the inherent and dangers in “Breaking Vows.” These are serious issues.

/>The implications of the tales of Piccarda and Constance indeed concern this reader as much as they did Pilgrim Dante. Something just does not seem right/fair. The judgment seems so, so … well – so unfair.

Why are these two seemingly blameless women, chaste and devoted, who were forced against their own will to break their vows, relegated to the bottom sphere of Paradise? Why do they hold lower status than the others in Heaven?

Well, one could turn to the old adages: “Ours is not to reason why,” and “God works in mysterious ways”. But, Beatrice informs us – “NOT SO.” Piccarda and Constance are as close to God as any in heaven, it just SEEMS otherwise to us – to our limited comprehension (at least that is the first argument).
They showed themselves here not because this post
was assigned to them, but to symbolize
that they stand lowest in the Heavenly host.

So must one speak to mortal imperfection
which only from the sensible apprehends
whatever it them makes fit for intellection
. (IV, 36-42)

It’s all about perception, you know, about our imperfect perception.
How do we perceive? Well, through our senses, of course. We know that the problem of misperception of reality (and REALITY) has been the basis for many a poorly made decision, right here, in this, our world of the mundane. And, if perception is a problem in the material world, then how well can one perceive in /of the spiritual? The Divine? This is a major problem for all us lesser beings. Therefore, as Beatrice explains:
“Scripture in like condescends,
describing God as having hands and feet
as signs to men of what more it portends.”
(IV, 43–45)

OMNIPOTENCE, OMNISCIENCE, AND OMNIPRESENCE – Oh My!
Indeed, in the fourth canto, Dante (the author; not the pilgrim) emphasizes the importance, and the seeming problems involved in “Free Will,” including the conundrum of “Theological Fatalism” (The “Paradox of Free Will”: If God knew how we would decide and how we would act, when he created us, how can Free Will exist at all?
Indeed, are omnipresence / omniscience and Free Will compatible?

Beatrice points out that Plato made a grievous error concerning destiny and the preordained paths of our lives. He believed in fate and predestination.
Beatrice explains to Dante (the pilgrim) that people are not “drawn to planets” (this basically meaning they were predestined to do so), as Plato asserted in his Timaeus (shades of Samuel Butler’s “Realm of the Unborn” and “Birth Formulae” in his Erewhon).
This is illusion.
It occurs to enable mortals visiting Paradise to sense souls at all.
Beatrice proceeds to tell Dante that souls only seem to be ‘located’ at particular ‘levels’ (see Ciardi 628). These souls are, in fact, fully blessed, and as close to God as are all those in heaven. None of the souls Dante sees here are actually ‘here’ (in the Lunar sphere) at all. Instead, she explains, every one of the ‘saved souls’ inhabit the highest heaven, the Empyrean. They only appear to be in different levels of heaven to Dante because that is the only way a human mind can perceive them at all. They may not all be equal in their blessedness, but they all dwell with the Lord.

And, what of Broken Vows? Of Absolute Will, Conditioned Will and Justice?
There is a reason for the existence of choice. Humans were made in God’s own image. They were given autonomy. Without choice, indeed, there is, in a sense, no good nor evil.

So, we have choice. We have Free Will. But, what is the extent of its scope? Is it relative or absolute? There would be little reason to have a unique purpose, or to hold meaning in life, if everyone’s life were predetermined. Dante (the author) was well aware of this; he believed that humans could control their own destinies. God put everyone on an even playing field: that’s justice; that’s Grace.

So, do we have truly Free Will? Or, is the “game rigged against us?” The former, according to Beatrice, because we have the ability to utilize our God-given Absolute Will. But, to succeed, we need to overrule our earthly Conditioned Will. The Absolute Will is incapable of willing evil, she asserted. But, the Conditioned Will, when coerced by violence or temptation, interacts with it and consents to a lesser harm in order to escape a greater.” (See Ciardi p 629) And, while men may not be able to control the forces that stop them from pursuing their vows, they can control their reactions to these forces.

As to the stratified nature of Heaven, every soul in Heaven rejoices equally in the bliss of God’s will. However, those who did not fully keep their vows are found in the lower ‘classes’ of the blessed. Not because they are viewed as less important to God, but quite simply because they lack capability to be closer to Him in Heaven. Therefore, in Heaven, as in Hell and Purgatory, a type of hierarchy does exist.

The second problem involves the inviolability of the will and the amount of freedom in forced actions. When one is forced to break a vow, should God hold them accountable for doing so? To what extent? Should they be diminished?
Well, yes, if they do not act to rectify the situation later. That is what absolutes are all about. That is why there are so many martyred saints (e.g. St. Lawrence and Mucius; 81-86). So said Beatrice. It is sin to break a vow to avoid danger or to “avoid the violence of others threatening them.” Committing a sin out of fear for life is understandable, but diminishes one. Beatrice called this “laziness of will,” Conditioned Will, in opposition to not the God-given Absolute Will.
A vow is a pact with God, in which one necessarily gives up his/her Free Will. Breaking a vow is just that, “Breaking a Vow.” Beatrice ventures to help Dante reconcile these incessantly frustrating theological issues of ‘Independent Action,’ ‘Free Will,’ ‘Predestination’; and the existence of ‘God’s Plan.’ She satisfies him; I’m not sure she satisfies me.

Afterword: At the conclusion of the Canto, Beatrice asserts that temporal power does exist concerning means to compensate for the transgressions of the Conditioned Will. Papal Indulgences are valid, but must be used carefully, with wisdom and authority. Future Protestants take note!
Bob Sinner


Paradiso Canto 3: Blessedness in the Lowest Sphere of Paradise

I am Piccarda, and I am placed here

Among these other souls of blessedness

To find my blessedness in the lowest sphere.

 

Our wishes, which can have no wish to be

But in the pleasure of the Holy Ghost,

Rejoicing in being formed to his decree.

(3.49-57)

 

In the sphere of the moon—the lowest of the heavenly spheres—Dante encounters the blessed soul of a nun who had been forced to break her sacred vows and to marry through her brother’s political machinations. Piccarda apparently died of despondency soon after her wedding. Though her brother and her husband used her body as a pawn in a game of political power, she remained married to Christ in her heart. She now spends eternity in communion with the Lord and oriented to Him. No one shall misuse her or wrench her body from her soul ever again. The desires of her heart find perpetual fulfillment in devotion to Christ as inspired and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. A truly blessed state!

Piccarda has no interest in moving to a higher sphere in paradise. She communicates absolute contentment and pure fulfillment. What she desires most, she receives. Inclined toward the Lord, she finds blessedness and joy without end. Rank, status, and privilege matter not one whit to her. She is free from calculating ambition and the slavery of unfulfilled desire. Piccarda serves as a worthy guide to heavenly bliss.

Piccarda can function as a spiritual model for the Lenten reader of the Paradisio. She loves the Lord with all of her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She finds her joy and fulfillment solely in the Lord. As a result, she finds contentment right where she is and does not long for anything beyond intimate fellowship with the Lord in the Spirit. In this regard, Piccarda can serve as an ideal guide for Lenten pilgrims. She would seem to ask us what it would take for us to find contentment and joy in the midst of our current station in life? She seems to teach us that the secret to a blessed life here and now consists of finding fulfillment in intimate fellowship with the Lord. If we heed the call to turn away from all sources of ignorant craving and all efforts at chasing after wind, Piccarda holds out the promise of a contentment and joy hitherto unimaginable.

One wonders why Piccarda’s bliss does not suffice for Dante. Why must there be other heavenly spheres that are higher than that in which Piccarda dwells? Did Dante not take Piccarda seriously? If true blessedness comes from orienting one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength toward Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, why would there need to be any higher levels of heavenly joy? The notion of ranked levels of paradise would seem to undermine the very notion of the true character of heavenly bliss as we find it exemplified in Piccarda. Because Dante has proven a worthy guide through hell and purgatory, we shall press onward and upward…even if a bit puzzled as to why we need to do so.

 

 


Paradiso Canto 2: Reason Has Short Wings

How can you ask a question in Paradise?

Quite a question in and of itself. You’d have thought Paradise was where all questions have been answered. Was itself the answer to all questions. The garden in which all questions come to rest, without need for more.

Um, no. Not Dante’s Paradise.

More than once I’ve heard people say something to the effect of, “If I ever get to heaven, I’m going to have a few questions for the Almighty.” Understandable. Let’s say you find yourself in the Promised Beyond. All is One. All is revealed. All is known. A lot of us might well be like the Dante of the Paradiso. We might start asking, “OK, this is great. So how does it all work? And why does it work this way?”

In that (celestial?) light, it makes sense that so much of Paradiso is a question-and-answer session between Dante and his beloved pipeline to the Divine, Beatrice. Dante’s a lover, a poet, a scholar, a sinner, and in each of these roles he is amped, hyper-pumped, and supercharged with desire to know. As in know everything. Now’s his chance, and he’s going to make the most of it. He writes of the “longing” that is “enflamed” to “see” how it all works, our “inborn, perpetual thirst” that compels us forward and upward. And that has been the spur to the creation of this vast epic journey in the first place.

To begin, he reminds us no other poet has written a poem like his: “The waterway I take never was coursed before.” I love the opening lines, with Dante sailing in his boat, and warning other writers, in effect, not to try this at home. You might get lost!

Heaven, we soon see, is a hierarchical place. You can be closer or farther away from God, according to the virtue shown in your life. Like many of us, Dante is bothered by this, and he wants to know more. In Canto II, he is in the lowest sphere of heaven, that of the Moon. He writes, beautifully, “Beatrice looked upward, and I on her” (Beatrice in suso, e io in lei guardava). As a character in his own poem, Dante has always relied on someone, but really, his real guide has always been Beatrice, what she represents, the love of his life, and the Love toward which he and all things progress. His dependence on her is really, in the end, his dependence, the dependence of all existence, on God. He keeps forgetting that, and she keeps having to remind him.

So the question is: Why do we on Earth see black marks on the moon? If the moon is part of Heaven, why wouldn’t everything be perfect? Constant? As we learn, we are now in the lowest sphere of Heaven, that of the Moon, and this sphere, although still celestial, is characterized by inconstancy. With its changing phases, the moon was a symbol of the inconstant, the changeable, and Dante finds it a little unsettling to discover what appears to be inconsistency in the celestial realm.
Now, Dante had no telescope. But his question is one we still ask. We see the physical cosmos all around us, and we’re amazed by its vastness and beauty. But we also see signs of randomness, chaos, destruction. How, we ask, does this reflect the caress of the creating Hand? Dante’s question has resonance for 2012, no doubt about it.

Dante has some theories about varying densities of matter, and he runs them by Beatrice. It’s already pretty clear he’s wrong. Beatrice smiles indulgently “for a moment,” then remarks that Dante, knowing that human reason makes a lot of mistakes, and also knowing that “even when supported by the senses, reason has short wings.”

Wow. Dante and Beatrice take for granted the very truth our own age finds so repugnant, and which many people argue against with all their might: reason, even when the senses give reason evidence, has “corti l’ali,” short wings, a circumscribed ambit. To understand Paradise, to understand matters spiritual and divine, you have to think with more than reason. You have to augment reason with ways of knowing that connect with divinity, with hope, with virtue. To echo George Michael, to whom I never thought I’d be referring in any context whatsoever, “You Gotta Have Faith.”

It’s important for those of us with faith to acknowledge that those who reject faith do so for good reasons. Our reason and our senses are all we’ve got, or it can seem like that. These amazing tools help us solve our problems every moment of every day. When we’re asked to leave them, or to augment them, or to modify them — or when we’re told, as Beatrice tells Dante here, that they are inadequate — it seems an outrage, an affront. Little wonder when faith makes people feel disoriented or insecure.

But let’s be serious here. We employ faith all the time. “Object permanence,” the stage of infant thinking in which we asumme that objects that disappear momentarily from view still exist (as in a blanket withdraw from view momentarily), begins our long, innate, and necessary dependence on faith of all sorts. We can’t think or reason, ironically enough, without various levels of faith. That doesn’t invalidate the insistence that we honor reason, the senses, and the rules of evidence and argument. But it does make it seem silly to insist that we hold ourselves to only those things.

Beatrice, for one, is a big fan of reason and evidence. She even, in a wonderful, premodern moment, recommends that Dante conduct experiments to test his theories: “You can be set free from this quandary through experiment — if you ever want to try it — which is the font of the river of your arts” (“Da questa instanza puo deliberarti/Esperienza, se gia mai la provi,/Ch’esser suol fonte ai rivi di vostri’arti“). And by “arts” she means the arts and what we’d call the sciences. So both she and Dante are enthusiastic fans of science and reason.

But both insist that reason has those short wings. And this canto demonstrates it. She answers Dante’s question about the spots on the moon, but neither the substance of his question, nor, really, her answer, is the canto’s real point.

The real point is that Dante, in asking the question as he did, fails to understand. He fails because Heaven cannot be understood. Not, at least, without understanding the limits of understanding.

The last seven stanzas, among the most beautiful in the whole Paradiso, depict a cosmos deriving from the Intelligence behind it, which distributes intelligence throughout the universe as befits the bodies and levels of being in the cosmos:

Thus Intelligence multiplies its goodnesses
Among the scattered stars
Revolving itself upon its own unity.

Varying power makes diverse connections
With the precious matter it enlivens, in which –
As it does with life in you – it binds.

Thanks to glad nature from which it derives,
This mingled power shines throughout the body
Like gladness through the living pupil [of the eye].

It’s both not much of an answer (God mingles with everything, and everything shines according to God’s best plan), and a great answer, since it brings all questions back to the Light, to the Intelligence, in which human reason participates but from which it remains far distant, and of which it is but a circumscribed version. Dante, once again, has forgotten the dependence of all creation on the Light. That led him to ask the question. (Thus Beatrice’s smile!) Our one way even to approach the truth of the Truth is to have faith, and to see through faith — indeed, as the glad light of Intelligence shines through the living pupil.


Paradiso Canto 1: The Still Point of the Turning World

How to begin, when any beginning would be a failure.

How to speak, when any speech would be inadequate.

How to do justice to the place that is no place, only a shadow of the light that gives it any reality in the realm of sense.

A humble blogger (do I speak for us all?) calls upon powers greater than himself. Longfellow, Sayers, Pinsky. Alighieri.

And so we enter the realm of paradox, where punctuation will be convoluted, questions will become statements, reality will be folded into itself and human consciousness will be twisted – or I should say untwisted – so that what seemed unnatural will make perfect sense, in the ultimate discovery of the nature of that which powers the universe: love.

Hey, hell was easy: it’s literally stuck to the ground, too vivid, too sensical in its nonsense. Purgatory is the place where we rejigger our senses, where we forget in order to remember, and begin with a clean slate, a second infancy. Here we’re dealing with the opposite stuff: the place beyond sense altogether, which we can only get to through our senses. The place beyond words, which can only be apprehended in words, the parlance of human consciousness. (Stuff modern neuroscience is still trying to figure out). How speak trans-human change to human sense? (1:69)

I guess as good a place to begin as any is here: at the beginning. The very first line of this third Canticle indicates the source of its meaning:

The glory of Him who moves all things rays forth
through all the universe and is reflected
from each thing in proportion to its worth
(Canto 1:1,2)

As I think of this beginning, I can’t not think of another poem I have been studying the past couple weeks with a small band of pilgrims at the church I serve: Eliot’s Four Quartets. (Our own John Timpane is doing the heavy lifting as teacher of the class). The reference here in Canto 1:1 is to a popular concept in the medieval Thomistic theology, borrowed from Aristotle, from which he’ll be borrowing heavily: the unmoved mover, which gives the whole universe motion, that “still point of the turning world” from which all things ray forth, and which at the same time is centered in our own consciousness. Seems to me that there’s even more Dante in Eliot than I had ever realized.

Erhebung has everything to do with it. Using aesthetics, the beautiful, to represent, to reflect the good, in the impossible task of expressing it. “Ennobling elevation beyond the senses.” At the still point of the turning world, there is the dance that Dante will find, his love by his side.

So, as we begin, let’s sift out a few themes (just a few among so many) that are so very distinct in this Canto, and give us very concrete clues about what Dante will be up to in this final section of his masterwork.

Dante calls upon not just the muses (as he does at the very beginning of the whole enterprise), but this time upon Apollo, the master of the Muses. And not just him – but all his minions. Why not call on God himself, one might wonder? Ah – a clue. Apollo, the pinnacle of the pagan pantheon (sorry), a provisional figure to bear witness to the ultimate revelation which comes after him. Fitting indeed to inspire what can only be a provisional description of what cannot be described.

We have then also the image of light, which will be so important in what proceeds forth from here. Light, and our ability to perceive it through our sense of sight, serves as a metaphoric foil to describe the larger process that’s happening here, having to do with the re-attunement of a mortal soul. Just as we would never stare at the sun (here I’m remembering those pin-holed cereal boxes we held in the air during the solar eclipse of 1972 to see a tiny reflection of what was going on – and our mothers’ warning never to stare directly at it), Dante does just that. Beatrice can look at it, no problem. Somehow that Dante reflexively imitates her action (a “reflection” of her action) and does not go blind indicates that something has already changed in him: he is capable of seeing “it” – although not for long, and not the true “it”, but a second version, a second sun.

That we’re dealing with the problem of the senses here – not just light, but sound – is evident in the next few lines, where Dante detects the true motion of the universe, the “Primum mobile” that is the physical origin of all movement and life. That movement vibrates; it makes a sound that every creature is capable of detecting: the music of the spheres that betrays the essential harmony of the universe, but unheard by our normal mode of listening and hearing. What’s needed is a complete re-orientation not just of our senses, but our perception, dull with “false imaginings” that “do not grasp what would be clear but for your preconceptions.” Heaven requires a whole new paradigm, baby.

Finally, we return at the end of this canto to the very themes upon which Dante muses at the very beginning of his journey: the nature of desire, the mystery of free will that allows for imperfection in the art of a perfect maker. Here we hear once again that this place toward which we are navigating, toward which the whole universe is impelling us – whether we know it or not – is that place where our desires are truly satisfied:

Thus every nature moves across the tide
of the great sea of being to its own port
each with its given instinct as its guide.

I’m somehow reminded of C.G. Jung’s contention in the realm of psychology: that all beings tend toward wholeness (though not all of us get there).

But at least we can know the place, if now only by its reflection in a medieval poet’s words, as that which is the real object of human desire. So here’s the claim: it’s the place where we belong – in all multivalent richness of that word. Where being and longing are truly satisfied, where we BE LONG; that place that is

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.

Onward!